Will listened wide-eyed in the light of the campfire as a scout reported to their wagon master, Mr. Dillow, that he had seen a huge herd of buffalo. “It’s a reg’lar sea of the critters, spread out over that valley floor, yonder across them rocky bluffs!” the scout said excitedly, pointing westward.
I must see them! Will promised himself, as he listened to the men plan a dawn hunting party to provide fresh meat for the wagon train.
So far, the trip from Missouri had been dull and disappointing. All day long they plodded through choking clouds of dust or through cold rain and mud. Setting up the camp at night involved unloading iron kettles, chopping wood, and refilling water barrels when everyone was weary from the day’s trek. Repacking the wagons before dawn in the chill morning air and still being half asleep was worse. It was nothing like the exciting stories he had read about the West. He had seen no Indians and only very small herds of buffalo from a distance. This might be his only chance to see such a herd.
With a full moon lighting his way, the blond boy slipped away from the ring of covered wagons and cooking fires and searched out a sloping game trail up the bluffs. He felt certain he could see the heard and be back well before dawn and before he’d be missed.
Will was almost to the summit when he realized that he was being followed! How often Mr. Dillow had warned the children about staying close to the train. “Out here,” he warned, “there is safety in numbers. You have to know this country to realize the danger. Besides hostile Indians, there are pumas, rattlers, blinding sandstorms, and flash floods. You can die of thirst under a blazing sun, freeze to death in a mountain snowstorm, or find you’ve walked into quicksand. There will be no private adventuring on my wagon train!”
The boy hesitated. Remembering the warnings about pumas and rattlers seemed to make his heart leap into his throat. The wagon master was a rough, red-faced bellowing man of action. If he had seen Will leave, he would have grabbed him by the seat of his pants and overall straps and dragged him back to camp. So he was sure it wasn’t Mr. Dillow who was following him. Then he heard his younger sister Becky cry, “W—Will? Where are you? I—I’m afraid. Wait for me!”
Will pretended to be angry, but he was so relieved that he could have hugged her. “I can’t do anything without you tagging along after me like a puppy! You were supposed to be asleep under the wagon; what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I was only pretending to be asleep,” Becky explained. “I knew you’d slip away to see the buffalo, and I wanted to see them too!”
Will couldn’t send her back along and risk her getting lost. And he wouldn’t have time to take her back and return. There was nothing to do but let her go with him. “We have to see the herd and get back before first light so no one will miss us. If you can’t keep up with me, I’ll make you wait by the trail until I start back,” he warned.
“I can keep up. I’m as strong as you!” Becky retorted, boasting a little. Will knew she was wiry and fast-moving and the threat of being left alone to wait spurred her on. But when she began to lag, he relented and slowed down until she caught up with him.
“Look at that! There must be thousands and thousands of them!” Will whispered in awe when they reached the crest of the hill and saw the shaggy buffalo spread out over the valley floor. They made their way down the slippery trail for a closer look.
“They have found good water and grazing here,” he murmured. “Just look how much bigger they are than the few we’ve seen so far.”
Engrossed with watching the closest buffalo, he was annoyed when his sister suddenly gasped and clutched his arm in a tight grip. He impatiently tried to shake her loose, but Becky held on tightly.
Will whirled around and swallowed hard when he saw the tall Indian brave standing between them and the trail! His mouth went dry and his heart pounded like a drum as he watched several others move in on each side of them. The braves moved silently like ghosts. No wonder he had not heard them.
He looked for a way to escape, but they were trapped! Are the Indians going to harm us or will they be friendly? Will put his arm around his sister and pulled her close. He thought again of Mr. Dillow’s warnings. How he wished they had obeyed orders never to leave the wagon train. And he thought about their parents. Will they ever discover what happened to us? If we’re killed or taken away, they’ll only have Baby Ben left. He could see tears sparkling on Becky’s cheeks, but she was too frightened to cry out.
A horse and rider moved out from the trees. He was certainly their chief, by the look of the elaborate feathered headdress he wore. Will stared curiously at him. A white cloth was bound and knotted around his jaw. Has he been wounded? Will wondered.
The first man began to speak. He pointed at the chief, then away toward where the wagon train had stopped for the night. Will couldn’t understand, but still he began to feel better; for the Indians obviously wanted something, and had made no attempt to harm them.
Will pushed Becky behind him and watched the man’s hands. Again, the brave pointed from the chief to Will, then his hands made a swooping motion. Does he mean up and over the hill? Will wondered. The brave made a circle in the air. Is it the ring of covered wagons? The Indian showed his strong teeth, then held his jaw and made a groaning sound.
“A toothache! The chief has a toothache,” Becky whispered. “Don’t you remember how Grandma used to tie a cloth around her jaw when her tooth hurt?”
The brave put his fingers on one of his teeth and made a jerking motion. “You’re right, Becky. I guess they’ve tried to pull it and can’t without instruments. I think they are asking if there is a dentist with us,” Will said quietly. He stepped forward and nodded his head. He pointed at the chief, then toward their train. Will pulled Becky forward and showed them the gap where her two front teeth were missing. The men began to smile and nod their heads.
“What are you doing, Will?” Becky cried. “You know that I pulled those two loose teeth myself! We can’t take them to the wagon train. When they find out we don’t have a dentist along, they’ll probably scalp everybody and burn the wagons!”
“We have Dr. Stieger. He has all kinds of instruments. He could do it,” Will said.
“But he’s not a dentist or even a real doctor. He’s a veter … a vetnar … an animal doctor!” his sister wailed.
“I know that,” Will said gamely, “but he might be the only chance we have of getting out of this spot alive!”
The sky was turning pink when they approached the circle of covered wagons. One of the guards shouted an alarm and the Indian band stopped and waited. Mr. Dillow hastened out to meet them, pulling his suspenders up over his underwear. He stared in disbelief when he saw the children riding double on the horses of two Indian braves. Anger tightened the muscles of his face.
Will couldn’t meet Mr. Dillow’s accusing eyes. He stared down at the ground and explained to the stunned group of settlers, who silently gathered behind the wagon master, what had happened. “Their chief has a bad toothache. I didn’t know what else to do, so I told them Dr. Stieger is a dentist and can pull it for him,” the blond boy finished miserably.
Dr. Stieger was a timid, nervous little man. His face went white with fear and he began to shake his head. “I’m a veterinarian not a dentist. You expect me to yank a throbbing tooth from the jaw of that man who is already reeling with pain? He’d kill me! I won’t do it!”
“Oh, yes you will, Dr. Stieger,” the train master said through gritted teeth, trying to keep a reassuring smile on his face. “You have no choice—and neither do the rest of us. Anyone knows it’s going to hurt. The chief is prepared for that and braced for the pain. Now, get your medicine bag, and act like the best dentist in the world!”
Once he realized he had to do it, Dr. Stieger calmed down a bit. His face was still pale, but he had stopped shaking so hard. The chief sat in a chair, his face impassive, as the little man hesitantly selected a pair of pliers and approached him. Fortunately, the Indians’ efforts to pull the tooth had loosened it. No one was more relieved than Dr. Stieger when one strong jerk removed it.
The chief, who had not flinched, stood up and spat. He rubbed his lumpy jaw and smiled. Poor Dr. Stieger wobbled off, dazed, holding the large tooth, still clamped in the pliers, out in front of him like a candle.
“What’s he saying?” Mr. Dillow asked one of the scouts, as the chief spoke and motioned westward.
“He thanks the good tooth doctor for relieving his misery. And the children for bringing him here. He says he will permit the train to cross their land and escort us to the river,” the scout replied.
“That will save us six hard days of travel!” Mr. Dillow exclaimed incredulously. “According to treaty, we’ve always had to go around his tribe’s land. Tell him we appreciate and accept his generous offer.”
Will’s smile faded as the wagon master turned back to them. “We’ve been lucky this time, but if you two ever leave my train again, I’ll skin you alive!” he growled.
“Y—yes, sir!” Will stammered. “But you don’t have to worry about that. A herd of wild horses couldn’t drag us out of sight of the wagons again!”